Art has a way of informing what is important to a society in history that text can't quite reveal in the same way. In my recent research for both Zizola and the Three Sisters, I have discovered an interesting bit of art history that concerns the depiction of the sudden conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. It's a great story of course -- a man driven by angry passions "breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord" heads out to seek permission to persecute Christians. But along the way, his plans are divinely interrupted by a blinding flash of light that sends him tumbling to the ground and called by God. The text (Acts 9) never mentions a horse -- just that "...he fell to the ground and heard a voice..." But Medieval and Renaissance artists, like good storytellers looked for a way to visually and evocatively tell the story in a single frame -- to make it familiar, and therefore more immediate to their audiences, and so the horse became part of the iconic image of the tale. Saul is often painted as riding a horse, and then falling (sometimes the horse with him) as if thrown to the ground.
It certainly made for a more dramatic version of the story. A flash of light is not as arresting to paint as a man falling from his horse, or the horse stumbling and throwing the rider. It was common enough to travel by horse in the middle ages -- and by re-creating Saul as knight, it also gave strength to his identity as an avenger, someone of power. And it also worked because the sin of pride was frequently represented by a knight that has been unhorsed. (As a side note, I am also intrigued by the variety of ages of Saul -- sometimes appearing young and vigorous, other times, though supported by an armed guard, he looks more elderly, balding, as if his age lends weight to the sin of pride, that a mature man should not have had the hot temper of reckless youth.)
There are gentler versions of this story -- instead of the vigor of military action, these images seem to focus on the weariness of Saul brought on by the long journey. Here the plodding horse reflects Saul's exhaustion, and having at last spent the better part of his anger, now permits the word of God to be heard at last. These images are quiet, calm, and the horse kneels rather than stumbles before the presence of God.
And there were interesting political uses of this story and image -- here is Pieter Bruegel's version where only in the center background of the painting can one see Saul falling from his horse while the crowds pay no attention (click to see large version). It is a subtle comment on the march of Spanish troops under Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba (1567) to the Netherlands to oppress the protestant revolt (which would embroil Europe in the Eighty Year War). Bruegel is hoping that like Saul, Duke Fernando might have a conversion on the march and a change of heart.
While there was an abundance of images with horses, there were artists who chose to be more faithful to the text, leaving out the horse altogether to focus on the man, walking on a journey from murderous anger to compassion and a new faith.
For more on this topic (and the source) check out Folia Magazine -- my new favorite journal -- and for a fascinating article on Caravaggio's gorgeous painting of this story, read "Caravaggio's Conversion of Saul, a Transfiguring Moment" by Karen Wilkin.